Birds of Prey is one of the best comic book movies of the last few years, if not an outright contender for most daring and inventive. A violent and garishly nonchalant kooky entry into the genre it is refreshingly for once-unashamed of its comic book roots.
Cathy Yan’s sophomore feature is a swing for the fences in a way so few comic book movies are anymore. Leaving Birds of Prey I found myself giddy with joy from what I had just seen. Though if history is any judge this will likely be her last major studio film. We punish women for making bold choices but reward male mediocrity every chance we get.
The narrative structure of Christina Hodson’s script is not unique in itself, but it is unusual for the genre. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) narrates Birds of Prey with her own attempt at noirish overtones but is waylaid by her own scatterbrained mind. She’ll tell us one thing only to realize she neglected to tell us something else. So Yan freezes the frame while Harley tries to figure out for herself where she needs to go back to and then jumps back to that point.
Hodson’s script continues on from there up to the point where we left off or Harley will remember something else and jump to another plot point. At times Yan and Hodson play with us by placing scenes back to back that appears to be chronological but if you look closely things like her shoes will tip you off that we have skipped timelines. In other words, if you are one of those people who was left frazzled and confused by Greta Gerwig’s Little Women chronological order, then reader perhaps Birds of Prey isn’t for you.
But Yan isn’t content to just merely tell the story out of order. She uses animation, camera zooms, freeze frames, and font types. Birds of Prey is a film which behaves as a logical extension of a cartoon and comic books.
If Todd Phillips’ Joker was trying its best to not be a comic book movie, Birds of Prey is trying its damnedest to be nothing but a comic book film – and it’s glorious. The colors and architecture of Gotham City range from gaudy and expressionistic to grimy and ordinary. A blend of styles that feels right at home in the whirligig universe molded by Yan.
While Yan’s aesthetics may call to mind comic book movies of the nineties such as Dick Tracy or Tank Girl, Hodson’s script brings a psychological complexity of the modern cinema. Harley Quinn is an abuse survivor not just because of her relationship with the Joker (whom we never see) but because of the abusers in her life. Her father abandoned her and the nuns at her orphanage beat her. Mister J is merely the flamethrower for the match that was Harley Quinzel.
The breakup of Joker and Harley breaks an already broken woman. Though we never see Joker, he looms large over the entire film. It’s not until she takes Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) a pickpocket, back to her apartment, do things really change. Up until this point, Harley has been talking up a big game about how she’s independent and how she doesn’t need anyone even her Puddin. But Cassandra asks about the drawing of Joker with all the knives stuck in it, “Who’s that?”
Cassandra has no idea who the Joker is. The notion that someone could not know who the Joker mystifies Harley. He loomed so largely in her psyche that it never occurred to her that in her mind was the only place he was big. It’s a small moment but in a movie like Birds of Prey with it’s Jackie Chan inspired fight scenes, the little moments stick out and pack all the more wallop because of it.
The connecting fiber of all the stories isn’t Harley, she’s just the narrator, but Cassandra. It’s Cassandra who lives upstairs from Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) the daughter of Black Canary who now works as a driver for crime boss and club owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Cassandra steals the famous Bertinelli Diamond from Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) who was picking it up for Roman and is now after her. The diamond belongs to Helana, who is now the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is hunting down everyone who killed her family.
Oh and I almost forgot Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who also knows Cassandra because she’s arrested her multiple times, is worried since it seems every knucklehead in Gotham is after this little girl. Did I forget anyone? I don’t think so.
Look, the point is, it all connects, and everyone’s connections are revealed in due time. But it also means they don’t “team-up” until the end and I love it. We’ve spent so much time with all these characters it never occurred to me that we haven’t really seen all of them together.
Matthew Libatique who has shot everything from the first Iron Man to Josie and the Pussycat Dolls frames every scene as if it may be his last. The fight scenes, which are beautifully choreographed, and cleanly shot to avoid confusion, are also done with a sense of fun and imagination. Libatique and Yan can’t help themselves as they seem like kids in a playland combining the absurd with the mundane.
A prison break-out scene turns into a Raid style fight scene complete with the sprinklers going off and Harley fighting off convicts and bikers with nothing but her kicks and a baseball bat. Libatique got his start in music videos and the influence is clear but unlike others, the compositions allow for a ballet of movement and images which support the larger narrative and overall aesthetic.
The third act involves an all-out melee brawl in the bowels of an abandoned funhouse with a showdown on Founder’s Pier which seems like it was made from dreams of Fritz Lang and Ingmar Bergman. All of this would be easy to lose control of but Yan keeps a tight grip and never forgets the characters. Winstead’s Helena almost steals the scene as the ultra-violent loner seeking vengeance and utterly unaware of her rage issue.
Smollett-Bell’s Helena balances an old school Femme Fatale with the new school cynical daughter of a former superhero. Rosie Perez is a legend and continues to be so and if there is a complaint is that I needed more Rosie Perez. Though to be fair, the whole movie could be wall to wall Rosie Perez and I would still demand more Rosie Perez.
Birds of Prey may also be the queerest superhero movie yet. Hodson and Yan never say as much but Harley tells us at the beginning before she met Joker, she dated many guys, and women, to try and find love. Detective Montoya’s ex-girlfriend is D.A. Ellen Yee (Ali Wong) and Harley labels her as such in her voice over. Harley is even seen partying with girls after her breakup, though whether those are friends are girlfriends it is never explicitly stated. Queer affection or desire is never to shown or expressed merely stated in the past tense. It is damn near depressing when putting into context just how revolutionary Birds of Prey is in comparison to every single other mainstream superhero movie.
It is impossible to watch Birds of Prey and not just let the love and adulation of comic books and comic book movies wash over you. Yan is so clearly in awe of the genre it feels as if oftentimes she is merely smearing her heart and soul on the screen. How do you watch this movie and not see Ang Lee, Zack Snyder, Christopher Nolan, Ryan Coogler, or Patty Jenkins? More so than any director before her, since the dawn of the MCU or the Warner Brothers/DC Universe, Yan has absorbed it all and molded it in her own image.
Hollywood demands box office juggernauts and deplores originality and daring. Which, wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t so eager to feed their ego by doing much the same. Birds of Prey is an ecstatic piece of filmmaking in a genre starving for it. Yan has made a rollicking and invigorating film, the likes of which we will probably never see again.